I recently received a very intriguing invitation from DSTV to a “Spine-tingling, nerve-racking, teeth grinding evening” at the Sunnyside Park Hotel. Based on this I made two guesses. One is that it was advertising a horror series and the second was that the evening would involve a Mystery Ghost Bus Tour which departs from the historic building. Turns out I was correct on both scores.
The Sunnyside Park Hotel was built as a house for a mining engineer, Hennen Jennings, in 1895. He only lived there until 1898. The second Anglo-Boer War broke out on 10 October 1899 and in 1901 Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner, commandeered it as his residence for the British administration period after the war. He lived there for five years before returning to England. Much of the beautiful gardens have been converted into parking area, but it is still a lovely Victorian building in a leafy setting.
I have been on the ghoulish, ghostly tour three times before so I was rather intrigued to see how different the tour is when it is conducted during the week for a private group. DSTV had hired several “zombies” to entertain, amuse or frighten the guests. When I tried to photograph one of these zombies, he reached out towards me and my cell-phone, scaring me quite considerably, much to my amusement.
Instead of meeting inside the Pound & Penny Pub, our party met in the gazebo where the event organisers had laid on drinks and substantial snacks. We also placed our orders for prego rolls (“Chicken or Beef?”) at the Troyeville Hotel as part of the tour. One has to buy one’s own drinks on the public tour.
The tour guide that I have previously experienced is Deanna Kirby. We get a young man, Devon, who usually does the Pretoria Mystery Ghost Bus Tour. Dressed in black with ghoulish make-up the tour guide and his assistant charm their audience from the outset as they set the scene for the evening.
The bus is different too. The public tour uses a luxury coach. We get a party bus with still more drinks and snacks on the bus. I can tell that I am not going to go away hungry. It is a hot summer’s evening and the ice cold beers are welcome. Most of the people sit upstairs on the open deck. One of the other advantages of the party bus over the luxury bus is that the sound system is infinitely better quality.
The route is somewhat different on this tour than the usual public experience which goes past Jeppe Boys, the Kensington Castle, the War Memorial on to Zoo Lake and also to Mike’s Kitchen (“Eikelaan”) for a drink and loo break in Parktown. We visit none of these places on my recent tour. I find the greatest pleasure in the differences given that the public experience is already familiar. So, too, are the stories recounted to us en route.
We still head out to the Johannesburg Fort, one of only two buildings built by the Zuid-Afrikaans Republiek (ZAR) which is still standing. We still hear the story of Daisy de Melker, South Africa’s most notorious female serial poisoner, the second woman to be “hanged by the neck until dead” in South Africa. We make our first stop at Constitution Hill, where I make some new discoveries. One is the Flame of Democracy which wasn’t yet burning when I last visited Constitution Hill. I am tempted to point out that democracy itself was safer when I was last there about five years ago than it is now under Zuma’s rough-riding of the ‘secrecy bill’ issue, but I shan’t. (Oops! I just did!) The Eternal Flame of Democracy was lit in Qunu where it was lit by former president Nelson Mandela in the presence of former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson before being transported to Johannesburg. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe then rested the Eternal Flame of Democracy in a handmade copper bowl to burn forever, signalling South Africa’s irreversible commitment to democracy. The location at the Constitutional Court was symbolic.
We moved round to the other side of the Constitutional Court where we meet The Angry Godzilla, a three-metre high wooden statue carved from a single tree, which stands guard at the foot of the Great African Steps at the Constitutional Court. It was carved by John Baloyi from a single lead-wood (mbambangoma) tree. John Baloyi is a former pupil of Jackson Hlungwani and is part of the unique carving tradition of Venda artists.
We then move on to the Rand Club at 33 Loveday Steet in Johannesburg. I often walked past this building in my youth but have never been inside. It was originally built as a gentlemen’s club by Cecil John Rhodes in 1887 (gold was discovered and Johannesburg proclaimed as a town in 1886). That building was razed and a second building was built in 1890. The present building was built in 1904, after the Anglo Boer War. In 2005 there was a fire which destroyed much of the building, but it has been restored. We were invited to meet the ghosts downstairs in their theatre. Despite the dark I was not nervous. Probably had something to do with the large number of people in the room. I suspect I would find it more spooky if I were alone.
While we were in town we drove past the High Court where Daisy de Melker was tried in Court No 3. I wonder briefly about the interest she arouses. Johannesburg has had many more violent and prolific serial killers since then, but somehow her allure endures.
We also drive past the other extant, although seriously damaged, ZAR building, the Rissik Street Post Office which also has a ghost story – an apparition in the underground tunnels which link the Post Office and Park Station. This ghost has been photographed and a copy of it was available at supper for us to view. This history of the Rissik Street Post Office was not known to me, but the burnt out remains of a building which has been criminally neglected by the city fathers despite money having been assigned for its restoration several times (each time becoming inadequate due to inflation and further damage in the face of the never-ending delays about restoring it). I am always nostalgic about this particular building for it was the one where I bought my stamps and posted my letters (well, mainly cheques which I used for paying bills back then).
As we drive through the city I am saddened by the dirt and squalor which was very apparent when viewed from the windows of a party bus. That is the true horror story of the evening.
Our third stopping point is the old Troyeville Hotel (it was first licensed in 1939) where we get to enjoy our prego rolls and another round of drinks and a ghost story relating to the Troyeville Hotel. This is standard on each of the tours.
On the way to the cemetery, we heard EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) and stories, including a rather traumatising tale by a woman who encounters and evil spirit in a South African hospital. The eerie music is also wonderful.
Our fourth and final disembarkation is at the Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg’s oldest cemetery, where we visit some graves, encounter further interesting snippets of history and land up at the chapel which is still used for cremations where we get to view an episode from the 4th Season of The Walking Dead which is starting on DSTV on 14 February 2014. Unlike the screening of The Walking Dead, the Mystery Ghost Bus Tour is not a show. One gets what one gets and that might, or might not, include one or more of the many spirits who frequent the space around us. Scary movies, scary experiences … humans are fascinated by life, death and life after death.
Bookings for the tour can be made on the Mystery Ghost Bus Tour website. http://www.mysteryghostbus.co.za/ Watch The Walking Dead on DSTV on 14 February 2014.